Keeping Our Students Safe
As an Education Consultant, I enjoy helping teachers, principals, and school boards make the learning experience better for students. I have four children of my own, and as former Assistant Principal of Islamic Foundation School, I greatly care about the climate, culture, and safety of our students.
Also, prior to my career in Education, I worked for about five years with ADT Security Systems as a field sales and service representative, designing and redesigning security systems for both commercial and residential applications.
It is from this background, and specific training that I received from law enforcement when I was developing my school’s emergency plans, that I have resources for principals, teachers, and parents to help our children stay safe.
This past weekend, ISNA recorded my webinar on “Keeping Our Students Safe at School,” and I thought its content worthy of sharing. You can download the presentation from my website www.geniusschoolonline.com under the Professional Development page tab, and ISNA put the recorded webinar presentation into this link.The first 1 1/2 minutes is silent and should have been edited out, but I do think the 38 minute presentation with PowerPoint is well worth listening to. Additionally, I am adding a link to a “mother list” of resources posting as of 1-27-2013, thanks to the Illinois Principals Association.
—Most days of the year, we send our children to school and trust that adults there keep our children safe and secure. Yet, there can easily be incidents of natural threats like fires, storms, or outbreaks of contagious illnesses. Unfortunately, although very rare, there could also be threats of violence from others. They may be disgruntled parents, from other students, or even from strangers outside our school communities.
Through this presentation, I hope to register awareness of the scope of possibilities, and some definite plans that parents and school personnel can take action with to minimize the impact of such threats to our safety. The best defense is a good offense, but while we aim to prepare, let’s be clear that fear has no place in this discussion. We know that to be effective, we need to purge fear from our minds and focus on solid actions. Good planning keeps calm minds that perform under pressure.
That is why I would like to introduce the topic with the framework of how families at home can address safety, and then widen the scope to include schools.
Safety Starts At Home
Emergency plans may or may not be part of every family’s protocol, but schools can use the following resources to help families have these discussions too.
Preparation has 4 Parts
Prevention-is examining the scene to reduce or eliminate risk
Preparedness-is the planning, acquisition of materials, and practice of actions
Response-are the steps taken in a crisis
Recovery-is about restoring the status quo
We will only present the first three in this presentation.
To introduce our first resource, we go to www.ready.gov/kids. This site is kid friendly with content, links, and games that prime students in a matter of fact way to become aware of many types of natural disasters. For example, there are pages informing about tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes and a tab defining terrorism. On the left side of the page are a sequence of steps that open into other pages and activities.
The second step encourages families to Make A Plan by asking questions:
If something happened, who would you call or email to get back in touch or picked up?
If separated, at what place would you agree to meet?
There is even a printable pdf for contact information that children can keep in a wallet or notebook, and an emergency kit list that helps families know what they should have ready to leave home with in case of fire, evacuation due to flood, or to hunker down within their homes if there is an extended power outage.
By being prepared, our families can intelligently respond to threat and minimize risk. Kids seek comfort from the adults around them, and starting with home safety, guided by parents, helps pave the calm, yet rapid, response we would need if working with a larger school population in a more complex setting.
Let me explain why. It was the first week of school, ten minutes prior to dismissal–with a large number of parents actually coming on time to pick up their children–when our main office emergency weather radio send us news of a tornado in our area. Sure enough, I ran outside to see an ocean blue turning to black sky on the horizon, approaching rapidly. Since we had trailers in the front and back areas of the school, the main office started making phone calls into each classroom while we had personnel also direct about 700 students with students and parents, corralled from the parking lot, to take shelter in the school basement. The storm that came was frightful, and fortunately we all pulled through without further incident. Teachers and students had awareness of our procedures even though we had not officially had the tornado drill yet that school term.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of scheduling these school drills as early as possible in the school year; and although many schools have employee manuals and emergency plans, it should probably have special time set aside for review at the first teachers’ in-service preceding the school term.
As former Department of Education Secretary, Margaret Spellings, stated, “Knowing how to respond quickly and efficiently in a crisis is critical to ensuring the safety of our schools and students. The midst of a crisis is not the time to start figuring out who ought to do what. At that moment, everyone involved–from top to bottom–should know the drill and know each other.”
Whether your school has an Emergency Plan or not, the best advice I can give you is to invite local law enforcement and the fire department to do an audit of your school safety. Often times they and the local school districts already have resources, and all schools’ plans, kits, and personnel training should be reviewed annually.
Go to this website for details on School Emergency Plans http://tinyurl.com/azcyfte
Communication is Key
Since many crises have potential to require a concerted effort, the principal and designated 2nd in command should have contact information and acquaintance with key management in law enforcement, fire response, local school heads, superintendents, and possibly senior managers of large commercial buildings, religious institutions, or community centers that may become secondary sites in the event of evacuation from school.
As part of my training in crisis management by our school’s local police department–which gathered all schools’ leadership within our district for a few meetings–the scenario was presented whereby a train was derailed and an unconfirmed, potentially toxic gas was heading downwind toward our school. Keeping in mind that this was a fictitious situation, I had to admit that the thought had never occurred to me, since the train tracks were two miles away. It forced me to consider that I had to make a plan…just in case.
Not to scare, but to become aware of potential hazards, is what Prevention is about. These are some of the things that schools can do to repel theft and violence.
- Well lit grounds
- Security cameras and monitors, obtrusively placed
- Security systems and sirens
- Police or community volunteer watch
- Secure doors, locks, window alarms
- Sign-in registry at a designated entrance for all visitors
- Student and faculty photo IDs
- Card access systems to security risk areas
- Limited access areas after regular school hours
Another important point is that the topic of prevention should include training everyone in the community to realize that if they even hear a rumor that someone may come to do harm to the school or someone in school, it needs to be reported to a responsible adult–no matter how unlikely–because many problems can be avoided just by putting “extra eyes” in an area. That is deterence!
This tactic is effective and can be implemented by vigilant parents in our school parking lots too. The presence of parents had deterred speeding, student fights, students who attempt to cut class, and even threats from strangers who may think twice about attempting anything related to our students and schools. Every member of a community should have the contact information, phone number and email, of the principal.
Your school should have annually scheduled visits by law enforcement, the fire department, and other agencies on a rotating basis, as you probably already do for the health department, state department of education, and accrediting organization. All these professionals support the safety of your school, and transparency dictates that their reports should be accessible to the public.
One very important document that should be copied and stored with first responders, and at another remote location as a backup, is a set of blue prints for the school building.
Another aspect of preparedness is to maintain a remote, safe storage of school records and computer file backup. These are steps typically done by corporations for disaster recovery, but some of our smaller, private schools may not be implementing this.
In light of the recent tragic event in Connecticut, I was reminded of how very important it is for the class’ attendance roster to always be handy if needed by any staff member. With self contained classes, there are special subject teachers who may be there when an alarm sounds, they too need to know from where to grab the folder with the student roster. With increasing use of online attendance, we may neglect to keep a hard copy of students’ names, and if we are in a corridor with the rest of the school, or in a field outside the building, we need to know that everyone is present and accounted for.
Natural disaster drills should be scheduled for the school year before the first day of school, and faculty should have a separate training session to know procedures and how they differ for bomb threats versus lockdowns, etc. Schools successfully have trained their students for the possibilities of fire and tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Fear has no place in this training. It is matter of fact and procedural. Bomb threat and lockdown training needs to be the same because a controlled and calm adult models for the students how to respond.
Schools should be equipped with technology that enables them to be informed, as well as the means to communicate even if dispersed. As the lead contact to interface with first responders, the principal needs to be focused on mentally processing updates to the situation. Therefore, a team approach is necessary with duties delegated. Often a solid member of the office staff will check in with each teacher or classroom, depending on the nature of the situation. Each teacher or class needs the roster to verify the presence of all students. Depending on circumstances, again, a staff member or teacher must look in all other locations unaccounted for, like restrooms and stairwells, and multi-use rooms. And a single person should handle media as the PIO, public information officer for the school.
Only after the welfare of all students and personnel is established, the decision to inform parents should be made. In some situations, first responders need access cleared for backup, so when they are present, the principal confers with them to decide when and how parents are notified. Trust their judgment and abide authority.
Your school may have a mass dialer system or a phone tree. Again, in the event that normal notification procedures prove inoperable, another backup, remote system of communication should be available. I used to keep paper copies of our students’ families contact information in my office, my briefcase, in my closet at home, and on a flash drive in my purse just in case it was needed at any time.
Also, regarding contingency plans, one day the top two lead contact people were out of our school attending a principals’ meeting with other school principals when the fire alarm sounded. Back up contact #3, who was informed previously that we were not going to be in the building, had to take charge. Fortunately, everything came out fine, but we were concerned when calling in for messages and no one answered the office phone line! Everyone was back in school safe within 15 minutes though.
What Can Parents Do?
Trusting that school leadership has done an annual audit, needs assessment, and has trained students and personnel on procedures from policies and published manuals, the role of parents is mainly one of support.
Do be sure to develop your home emergency and security plans as part of what smart families do. Then you could work with your principal, teachers, and PTO to help with supplies and community contacts. This is a useful list that parents can refer to in order to help.
Backpacks for each class with: first aid kits, rain ponchos, and thermal space blankets
Doctors & nurses
Building/construction workers and supply
School Climate and Culture
Beyond providing material support, planning, and procedures, awareness of school climate and cultivating a caring community is an effective prevention measure. Some schools have used Advisories with reports that they have significantly helped connect an adult in a small circle of perhaps ten students that check in with each other each day. Other schools instituted “Big brother” or “Big sister” mentor programs that ease younger students into a supportive relationship so that students are not left to “fall between the cracks.” We are more aware than ever that every student needs someone that they can trust, and teachers know to keep a watch for students who need Counseling.
Schools employ tactics to bring awareness and to coach students and teachers in handling bullying, character and values, and assertiveness training. All of these measures can help lessen the potential for problems, and empower students with life skills to be carried into their adult and parenting years. If your school is not doing these, research programs and suggest them to your school’s leadership.
Lastly, you can access specific procedural guides that detail what protocols are for threats at this link Crisis Management Protocol Guide.
Life has been crazy busy lately with preparing for two ISNA Education Forums, an article for Islamic Horizons magazine, the webinar, our daughter’s upcoming engagement party, getting ready for our niece to arrive from overseas for the party, and I’m investigating collaborating on a potential health related book project…all while the kids are home from school on Winter Break. It’s been challenging keeping up with workouts at the gym, and the weather has kept us indoors more than we like. Relief is coming though as we still plan to scope California as a new locale to explore. With stresses running high, I like to retreat my mind into thinking myself a drop in Siddhartha‘s river, just going with the flow. Resistance and struggle bring fatigue, so just go with it!
That it is He who grants laughter and tears; that it is He who grants death and life; that He did create in pairs–male and female, from a seed when lodged; that He promised a Second Creation; that it is He who gives wealth and satisfaction; that He is the Lord of Sirius (Holy Qur’an, Al Najm [The Star], 53:43-49).